Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


The "Greatest" Film of All Time

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 11:23 PM

Why Citizen Kane is the Greatest Film of All Time (And Why It Doesn't Really Matter)

I recently hopped over to to check out their upcoming Collector's Edition of Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray. I was more wanting to make sure the Roger Ebert commentary track was a part of the package, seeing a how that’s arguably one of the top 5 commentary tracks for any DVD you might ever buy. Thankfully it was. Unfortunately, as I looked over what came with the product (a DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons, that alone sold me) I caught glimpse of the "bad" ratings that has up there from its various customers. As easy as it is to just not care, the large bold “Overrated!” and “OMG This Movie Sux!” is hard for a film fan like me to overlook.

On a broader scope, this got me thinking and remembering that, despite all the praise that Citizen Kane receives, there's a good number of people who really don't like the film and try and give reasons as to why. In fact one reviewer claims himself a "film connoisseur" then, in the very same review, says he doesn't like black and white movies. I think his opinion, and he's fine in having one, can pretty much be written off as the same level of a child rambling on about how much he hates broccoli.

It's terrific! See, it says so right on the poster.

It's easy for a film buff and student to pretty much write any those off, actually. Those that try to bring down Citizen Kane are fighting a losing battle, and that angers them even more as though the rest of the world is wrong and they're the only ones that have any clue as to what's going on. I would liken it to conspiracy theorists...but it is just a movie, though they would liken themselves to such theorists at the drop of a hat and consider it a compliment. Their arguments usually come across as childish and unfounded and written with the grammatical proficiency of a middle-school student. However, I also know that there are "film fans" (though I’ve never read one actual critic dislike the movie) that aren't big fans of Kane as well, although their vernacular rarely exceeds calling it "overrated" and "boring."

It's perfectly fine to not like the film. Anyone can like or dislike anything under the sun. However, it's their reasoning and desire to find evidence of it being a "bad" film that is absolutely ridiculous. Most do this to validate the fact they like or dislike something rather than have any merit of reasoning behind it. The reasoning isn’t film critique, it’s an agenda. I spent some time googling and reading some customer reviews, so let’s get those first. Usually, it boils down to these:

It's Outdated and Better Movies Have Surpassed it.

This stems from the inability to be a relative reviewer and a lack of understanding of film history. A good movie is a good movie no matter the period, but especially when you take into account the period it comes form and know how movies were made during it. There weren't a whole lot of movies in the era that looked, moved, was structured and was presented in the way that Citizen Kane was. It handled the entire life story of one man through flashbacks, fragments of memory, and eschewed the concept of linear storytelling and a narrator that may or may not be getting it right in the first place. The film has you questioning everything, even the so-called facts you’re give. It's about perception of a man versus the reality of a man, and we realize all those stories amounted little to actually knowing Charles Foster Kane in the slightest. Only he really knew himself, as seen by his final moments alive, the destruction of the one thing that might say to people "this is who he really was" and the fact that, for the rest of history, he'll likely be seen in pretty negative light. It asks a lot of an audience to not be passive when it comes to a film, and Citizen Kane demands it. You have to piece his life together yourself and understand that not everything that is spoken about Kane may be entirely accurate (most who speak of him as we follow their flashbacks make themselves out to be victims, but we can't be sure). Kane himself is the puzzle. He is the larger-than-life enigma. You have to solve him yourself.

It's Style over Substance

Now here's one that is directly related to my previous mention of passive audience participation. If you simply sit and watch Citizen Kane, lay back on the couch and expect to be "entertained" in the same manner that a traditionally structured, three-act linear story with plot twists and set-pieces is going to entertain you, you will, at best, applaud the technical aspect of the movie and probably not realize how much substance is there behind it all.


You literally "dive" into Citizen Kane, and for film fans that "dive" is actually where the entertainment lies as we look deeper into the life of this one man and his life. The substance is how honest it is regarding Kane. He is, through perspectives of others, progressively a "bad" man. He's completely unlikable as money and power took the likeable young upstart man dancing with girls and turns him into someone that the audience would never route for. There's not "hero" in Citizen Kane, just viewpoints and an audience supplement in the newspaper reporter doing his story. It's a pretty candid plot of how greed destroys, but has that bittersweetness that, in reality, we may not know anything at all.

Kane is a complex analysis of views and the simultaneous success yet secret destruction of a life. The substance is there, it’s the subtle nuances that aren’t force fed to you and hiding behind the impressive cinematography and camera shots.

It Lacks a Human Relation

Now this is an actual legitimate complaint, though those that do say this often say it in the most dickish way imaginable. As mentioned, there's no "hero" in Citizen Kane. There's nobody for an audience to really relate to or "feel" anything for. It's a tragedy yet lacks emotional resonance. Most of the film is done through the eyes of others, and they're not exactly people we can relate to either.  However, it is far from  "soul-less."


The ending more or less proves that as we realize who better and simple life was as children. Many confuse Kane's saying of "rosebud" as him wishing he had his sleigh back. Wrong. He wishes he had his innocence back - that time when he was truly, unquestionable happy before having it taken from him. As is with nearly everything in Citizen Kane, it's a metaphor. In our dying days, you'll probably think back to the good, better times. Kane's was when he was a boy before the riches, the fame, the rises and falls. Before the ideas of money and power even crept into his mind. I think that's a pretty damn emotional impact for a so-called soulless movie.

It's Boring

As I mentioned in my video about critiquing film, "it's boring" is not a legitimate complaint. Sorry, you have to do better than that. Using "boring" as some blanket statement on any movie, again, tells me a lot about the person watching it.

It Drags in Final Third.

Which it does as Kane's character turns into more of a caricature and there's a sense of repetition that is both needed yet unneeded at the same time. It’s needed in terms of thematic impact to Kane’s character, it’s reflective of h is life, however not needed because a writer could find a way to not make it drag to the point of disinterest on part of the audience.


However, this is all very, very minor in a film that manipulates time and doesn't follow a traditional structure to begin with. Welles still makes the character incredibly intriguing even if one might feel the story itself is stagnant. I think that’s reflective of Kane’s life entirely. He rose and rose, then plateaued and became the bitter, angry man that people will, sadly, remember him as.


Get Over Yourselves

I do feel that there’s a group of movie fans that simply like to go against the grain. Hell, there are critics that do that, and they get paid for it. Some do it just to be an annoyance, others do it because they feel they’re simply better than everyone and want to be different by bringing down the things others may like, and especially to knock the popular things off pedestals like imps running through an the Louvre and spray-painting masterpieces to make a point.

Just Forget about "Greatest"

Honestly, much of the issues people have with Kane have to do with expectations. When you're called the "greatest" of anything, people will try their damnest to poke holes in your. When you constantly hear how great something is, you paint a picture in your mind on what to expect...and you expect to be wow'd by it. A film fan and student I could easily see being wow'd by it, but a regular movie-goer today? Probably not. They'll hear about it being great and likely leave disappointed...then write a bunch of reviews explaining why (usually "it's boring").

Expectations do that a lot, even amongst film students and critics. But if you just sit and want to watch a good movie, forget about the various movies that are called "great" and go in with a clear mind, you can't call this, or The Godfather or Casablanca or any of the many films that are labeled as "the greatest" and legitimately call them "bad." You can say you didn't like them, sure, but setting aside your personal entertainment value, the craft and the story and the final product itself is impossible to denounce.

A perfect example: I'm not a fan of Stagecoach. I will absolutely admit that a) I like other Ford movies far far better and b) I am a fan of the Spaghetti Western. That being said, the story is told so wonderfully and the actors so strong  that there's no way I would ever call it a "bad" movie. To me, I don't jump on sides and try to force my opinion on to others. (Maybe that's why I'm not famous). I think liking/disliking something is a little more complicated than yelling out that it’s good or bad. It’s a separation of self, something that many don’t quite understand. To most. If you like something, it’s good, if you don’t, it’s bad. No exceptions, no gray areas. Maybe that’s where I differ.

I also separate my expectations. I have them, everyone does, but I know deep down that I should also prepare for the worst and when it comes to reviewing a movie or discussing it, I think back to my expectations beforehand and debate whether or not that might have influenced my like or dislike of something. I know for a fact that no expectations can play a bigger role with me (as in...that movie or videogame was a nice surprise) than when I do have expectations of it being good or bad beforehand. When that happens, I take those into ,consideration and picture myself as if I had a blank slate. It's an attempt at being objective in the most subjective-analysis possible, I suppose.


What Kane Did Right


To the meat of this rather long-winded blog. I can sit and list off all the customer reviews and criticisms of Kane until the cows come home, but instead I’ll discuss the aspects of what Kane does right. I could go into the extensive nature of the things it in terms of the art of cinema such as depth of field, special effects, etc….  or to what the story is really about and how it impacted one Mr. Hearst. However, that’s not the point of this. Those elements aren’t what make it great.


Childhood to Death in a Well-Paced World

Third act aside, the fact is Kane manages to paint a portrait of a man’s entire life in two hours. We see Charles, or Chuck (I like to call him Chuck) as a boy, his life ahead of him, as a brash and daring upstart mogul, as a middle-aged man full of crisis and as a frail old man with his better years behind him. Though you may not become ‘attached” to Kane as a person, especially in spots of his later years as he becomes more weary and despicable, you do come to know everything he is about.

Through our series of flashbacks of those that knew Kane, we still  have something that’s incredibly well paced. It uses these flashbacks and constructs and major points to build the story of his life around. They’re placed perfectly throughout the structure of the film and we get poetic bookends of our reporter, our guide through Kane’s life, to bring a sense of completion and satisfaction, as well as perspective, to the decades that Charles Foster Kane was on this earth.


A Question of Accuracy

What many regular watchers, as in those that didn’t take an entire semester covering Citizen Kane in college, might overlook is that we never, except once, hear from Kane himself. Everything is done through degrees of separation. As our reporter goes about interviewing people that knew Kane, and subsequently we fade to more flashbacks, we can sometimes forget that everything seen is from their viewpoint. Not Kane’s.


This brings up a whole other idea of self-preservation. Nobody would ever paint themselves in a bad light. Notably, here, Susan Alexander (Kane’s mistress and second wife) who is a bitter alcoholic. However, all are just views and this is one of the oldest techniques of storytelling in the book, only here done far more lavishly and with an incredibly amount of depth. The truth is, you can’t really trust anything you see, and you’re trying to solve the puzzle of Kane just as reporter Jerry Thompson is. It turns out…we are never supposed to know and probably never will. In class, we made specific note of the opening and closing shots. A decayed old estate with high fences and a “No Trespassing” sign. That’s symbolism at its finest.


In other words, this is an element of uniqueness. You probably don’t need me to go into detail how even more unique it was at the time, but a I mentioned what Citizen Kane pioneered isn’t important here. However it goes back and forth yet maintains a consistent ability to tell a life story through second-hand accounts. It’s more intrigue than entertainment, though the intrigue itself should be the entertainment.


Amazing Performances

Welles demanded a lot from thae actors he worked with, but he also demanded a hell of a lot from himself. To this day, his performance as Kane is still regarded as one of the best of all time, he transforms from decade to decade to cover his life (other than when he was a child, obviously) and Welles himself was only 26 when he did it all.


However, he is also flanked by an amazing supporting cast, notably Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland and Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander. These are fully realized, three-dimensional characters that we get to know and understand about as well as we do about Kane himself. The entire cast, though, spouts dialogue in an authentic and natural way, the dialogue itself being incredibly memorable and poignant. You can tell that Welles and Mankiewicz probably spent days working out the lines and bringing characters to life. They only have two hours to tell a story of a life, but they need to ensure they have quality characters to be the vehicle to do it through. It’s safe to say they succeeded and cast actors that knew how to deliver.


It’s not Just About Kane

…but also about America and life within. Citizen Kane is a layered film and a commentary on the way America was in 1941, the year it was made. Watching it gives insights into the idea of progress, capitalism and greed. It also shows how too much of it all , those mythological attributes of the American Dream, can be just as detrimental as not having any of it. Life is about balance, if not restraint. Ambition can do wonders, but here Welles, almost in a predictive fashion of his own life, shows how ambition and rise to power can be easily supplanted with arrogance and downfall. Acceptance turns to isolation. Love turns to depression and bitterness. In the eyes of someone like Kane, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. That’s why he wishes he had his childhood back. A time when worrying about it all wasn’t a part of the equation of the fabled American Dream in the first place.


No Redemption in this Tragedy (exactly)

Citizen Kane is a contemporary, uniquely American tragedy. However, unlike most tragedys, it doesn’t attempt to make us love our hero nor does it attempt to bring in some sort of sense of completions and a satisfactory ending to it all. In many tragedies, even if the characters die, they at least died for something they believed in. In most cases, the characters around them are aware of this and when it fades out, whether it be a film or stage, you come to understand why they died. They, at least, lived for what they believed in.


Kane didn’t know what he believe in. To the world, he was just an old man with a ton of wealth that hated everything. To the world, that’s how he will always be known. Thompson never figures out who Kane was or what “Rosebud” meant. Only until the last shots do we, the audience, actually figure it out as who Kane was, or might have been, floats to sky in smoke and ash. Though we did figure it out, the idea that nobody else within the film’s world will ever know makes it a bittersweet ending to the whole thing.  To this day, it doesn’t conform to your typical “Hollywood” film or “Hollywood” ending. It’s less studio, more art house and retains that moniker to this day, 70 years later.


The Cinematography and Directing

Even detractors of Citizen Kane will concede to one thing: it is one damn fine looking film. The use of camera in correlation to the actors and sets, the multitude of symbolism in use of light, shadow, reflections and placement of the players. The use of sound and music, an echo or a diminished figure at the end of a hallway. Citizen Kane is an example of "crafting" a film than it is merely making one. It's a labor of love if there ever was one; something that was toiled over and thought intently about. The fruits of that labor can't be denyed, if anything by simply looking at the thing.

Only until more and films, and more and more directors over the course of many years, began showing the same elements of craft that Kane had already done did people really begin to appreciate the technical proficiency of the entire thing. It actually dissapeared from public eye until television began to re-air it and the "looking at films as art" began to emerge with a new generation of filmmakers and lovers of it all. The story of Citizen Kane’s production and release,really taking decades before people started to re-evaluate it, much less actually call it a “masterpiece," is almost as interesting as the movie itself. Again, though, I don’t need to go through that to try and show how great the film itself is.




My Personal Touch of Kane


You might assume that film schools and film departments in colleges get everyone in their classes together on the very first day of their very first semester and have them watch Citizen Kane. Well, that’s not exactly how it goes. Usually you need to understand the context of Citizen Kane in terms of film history before really getting into it. For me, I don’t think I really watched Kane until my second year of college. In fact, I think I was watching Huston and Fellini films before I even got to Citizen Kane.


The course wasn’t film history, surprisingly enough, though it was covered in one of the history classes I took.  Instead, it was a screenwriting class. I had no aspirations in writing a screenplay back then, I did it more to understand the language and process of film than to write anything at all.


(side note: a screenwriting class does not make you a good writer and able to write scripts)


We talked at length about Kane and its script. However, because this was a smaller class, there was no actual screening of the film. So I went out and purchased it - a very bare-bones edition of very poor quality.


Naturally, I loved it. I loved it even more when I bought it a second time, this being the two-disc collectors edition with Roger Ebert commentary track. I watched it again. And again.

By this point I took an entire course on Citizen Kane.  A whole class dedicated to one film. This was the first, it wouldn’t be the last (2001: A Space Odyssey would be the other). Included were various movie nerds like myself and three books about the history and process of Kane, not to mention the ripples it had in the industry felt to this day. We capped it all off with a screening of the movie on a big-screen. It wasn’t a print. I don’t think it was, at least. However, it generated the effect of being in a theater and watching the classic on the big screen at the very least.


And now I set off to purchase the movie a third time. It’s strange. I know the movie. The DVD I still have has a pristine picture and great sound. It includes a plethora of extras on top of it all. However, as a film fan, I have this yearning to get the Blu-Ray Collectors Edition. I don’t need it. Yet I want it. It’s an itch that movie fans just have to scratch when it comes to certain films.


It’s not always “Great” films. I would love a better version of Big Trouble in Little China than the one I have.



In the End, it Doesn’t Really Matter


Let me take a step back before wrapping this up. I had mentioned that, usually, throwing out the phrase “the greatest” is pretty foolhardy when it comes to films. I, personally, don’t like calling anything “the greatest.” Who’s to say? However, you can’t say it’s not great. There’s a huge number of films, books, works of art and music that is great, but nobody will ever be able to absolutely say it’s the “greatest” of anything.


So I tend to be more reserved in discussing when someone brings up the “greatest” of anything. Things can be “great” and trying to place them in some sort of order doesn’t always amount to much. As much as I enjoy reading AFI’s lists or similar outlets, I don’t put a ton of stock in them. “Yes, that’s a list of some great movies,” I would say. Then follow that up with “I don’t care about the order, it might as well be alphabetical.”


The masses don’t like that. Plus, let’s face it, publications and the like do it more to drive sales/traffic and spark debate than anything. Still, it can be fun (note: in the right company), they just shouldn’t be taken as seriously as they sometimes are, that’s for sure.

If you're a fan of film, you don't need me to ramble on, (apparently that's a bit too late now) about the qualities of Citizen Kane. It makes as much sense to do as rambling on about the composition of Water. It simply is and despite all the detractors, that won't ever change. For all the great films out there, no matter what order you might put them in, it never will change. They will always be great, and in most cases they don't need awards to prove it (Citizen Kane the poster-child of proof of that, only winning Best Screenplay at the Oscars). Nothing looks or feels like Citizen Kane. Nothing is quite shot like it (as I’m sure many of the screencaps here have shown) or moved like it. Every shot and angle was thought up and composed (often having meaning to each tilt or background), every line purposeful, every cut and edit planned well in advance. Art doesn't need proof or evidence and fans of cinema don't need a blog like this to validate it.

So why ramble on for ten pages? Because I love movies. I love this movie. I love many movies, but this is one that some seem to be outspoken about whether to love or to, unfounded, "hate." I tend to be the optimist, though. Love of cinema is meant to be shared. All art is and to have a site that's become rather movie-centric and not share a love of the "Greatest" film, whatever that may be to you, would be an error on my part. I'm certain there's been better things written about Citizen Kane, but this is merely my two cents in a rather deep well of wishes and dreams.

Wishes and dreams. That's rather poetic, isn't it? Come to think of it, I think that's why Citizen Kane really holds up so well and is rather beloved by so many. It's about those fleeting things both internally and externally: internally the wishes, dreams and desires of one Charles Foster Kane, and externally the same with one 26 year old Orson Welles who was at the forefront of ambition and looking at film as something beyond a moving picture and story to be told.  Perhaps that's the calling, or itch, that the detractors do not share. Perhaps they were expecting something to profoundly knock them on their collective asses and bring an epiphany to their own being. Maybe it just doesn't speak to them, or perhaps they honestly don't care enough to listen. Even if they can't, there's still no way to deny it's a damn good film...and that's all I think it needs rather than have "Greatest" overshadowing it. It's a damn good film, and that's all I want.



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